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Telecom Policy Makers Urged to Focus on Rural Connectivity

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The Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) Dr Ekwow Spio Garbrah has urged the 850 delegates attending the World Telecom Policy Forum in Lisbon, Portugal to make affordable access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) by the rural communities the central focus of their policy making. Dr. Spio Garbrah was among a number of heads of international organisations and ministers of telecommunications and ICTs who addressed the plenary session of the three day forum.

In a brief address which also commented on a report submitted to the Forum by the Secretary General of the ITU the CTO CEO observed that emphasis on convergence and next-generation networks in the documentation before the delegates did not seem to sufficiently recognise the special needs of the marginalised and underserved especially in the rural communities of developing countries. The CTO head was of the view that with some 60 percent of people in most developing countries yet to benefit from the advantages of Internet and mobile connectivity, a conference of this nature needed to commit time and attention to the needs of rural communities.

A former Minister of Communication of Ghana, Dr. Spio-Garbrah noted that the CTO has in recent years spent considerable effort in research on the subject of rural communications. He recounted that the CTO has undertaken a wide range of initiatives, including research with rural communities and other stakeholders, capacity building and training, as well as the delivery of knowledge-sharing events dedicated to improving rural access. This work, according Dr Spio-Garbrah, has enabled the CTO to consult those at the frontline of these efforts and has therefore given the CTO what he believes is an unrivalled understanding of the challenges at hand.

"We understand that the challenges include, but are not limited to: the incorrect advice given to many governments for years that they had no role in investing public funds to connect rural people; the relatively low institutional capacity of fledgling ICT ministries and regulators; the focus of some ICT operators on mostly urban markets; poor or non-existent electricity supply in many rural communities; the difficulty in creating sustainable and profitable business models for rural services; the topography of some communities that can make the roll out of conventional infrastructure unviable; and delays and uncertainty amongst Universal Service and Access Fund agencies on the most appropriate ways to invest their accumulated resources."

The CTO CEO expressed that his organisation is excited about the potential to connect rural communities and are eager to contribute to the development of policies in their member countries that will help seize the many opportunities.

"We need to develop policies that promote Public Private Partnership Peoples' (PPPPs) models, with the emphasis on the last P-People. By ensuring through better policies that those at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) play an active role in initiatives aimed at providing them with connectivity and services, we can ensure that services are demand driven and sustainable." Dr Spio-Garbrah emphasised that Rural users and the civil society organisations, traditional authorities and community agencies that often represent them, can play instrumental roles in PPPP's if and when the public and private sectors give them a meaningful opportunity to, adding that a policy framework that actively encourages the development of 4Ps would be easy to implement and would create a wealth of benefits for all.

The communications guru called on participants at the forum to encourage the development of ICT policies that encourage what he calls "collaborative competition" or "competitive collaboration". He said Operators, in particular, must learn to collaborate even as they compete, and to compete efficiently whilst they collaborate with others, and so must nation states and regulatory regimes. "Our governments, regulatory agencies, Universal Service Funding agencies, operators and equipment manufacturers must all avoid playing Zero Sum games and work more together in order to create a host of synergies", Dr Spio-Garbrah concluded.

The World Telecom Policy Forum has been organised under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

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